Deciphering HDMI: The Definitive 2.1 vs. 2.0 Guide

There was A LOT of hype when HDMI 2.1 was released at the beginning of 2017. After all, HDMI 2.1 is a huge leap forward from HMDI 2.0.

But several years later, most of the high-end, flagship 4K TV’s still offer a mix of HMDI 2.1 and HDMI 2.0 ports.

What gives?

Comparing HDMI 2.1 vs 2.0 can be confusing, so in this article I’m going to walk you through the major differences and what they mean for you. If you’ve heard the TV saleperson mention HDMI 2.1 and wonder what the big deal is, then keep reading.

We’ll get you up to speed fast.

What is HDMI? 

You’re probably already familiar with the HDMI ports on the back of your TV, Blu-ray player or game console.

HDMI is a technology specification series to standardize those video connections across different manufacturers and industries. HMDI 2.1 is the latest update to this standard, that was released at the beginning of 2017.

HDMI refers to the ports on your devices and the cables that connect the components. It includes televisions, home theater projectors, and A/V receivers, to name a few.

This latest HDMI standard promises higher performance and bandwidth, so you get faster refresh rates and better looking high-resolution images.

Differences Between HDMI 2.1 vs 2.0 

There are several big changes between HDMI 2.1 vs. 2.0. While HDMI 2.1 is quickly becoming the new standard, you’re still going to find a lot of devices with both HDMI 2.1 and 2.0 ports.

It’s important to connect the right device to each.

Here are some of the big changes that HDMI brings to the table.

HDMI feature support

Higher Bandwidth for True 4K Content

By far the biggest improvement to HDMI 2.1 is a much higher bandwidth capacity.

Previously. HDMI 2.0b limited bandwidth to around 18Gbps. HDMI 2.1 upped that total to a staggering 48Gbps with HDMI 2.1 – over a 2.5 times the previous maximum!

OK…but what does that actually mean?

HDMI 2.0b maxed out at 4K resolutions running at 50-60 frames per second. Anything higher than that, and the port just wouldn’t display the picture.

But HDMI 2.1 blows past those limitations and can display video at up to 10K at 120 frames per second!

Let that sink in for a moment.

Right now, 8K televisions are just making their way to the market, but there’s no reason to buy them yet. There’s no 8K content available.

HDMI 2.1 has enough bandwidth to not only display 8K video at 120 fps, but 10K content at 120fps as well.

Here are all of the video resolutions that HDMI 2.1 can support:

  • 4K50/60
  • 4K100/120
  • 5K50/60
  • 5K100/120
  • 8K50/60
  • 8K100/120
  • 10K50/60
  • 10K100/120

Even if you only play 4K content, using the HDMI 2.1 ports on your devices mean that content plays smoothly, whether it’s a movie or live action sports.

But the improved refresh rate and image quality aren’t the only differences between the two HDMI versions, so there are other reasons why it makes sense to upgrade to the new technology.

See What HDR Technology Can Do 

High dynamic range (HDR) technology optimizes image quality before it reaches your TV screen. Colors are richer and more dynamic, but your devices need the right HDMI ports before you can see the difference in picture tone and color. For more details, check out my guide on whether HDR is worth getting on your next TV here.

HDR10 is the current standard for television manufacturers, but it has one glaring limitation: it looks at the brightest and darkest frames of an entire movie to set the levels. So if a movie goes from really dark environments to really bright environments, those two scenes will set the tone for the entire film.

HDMI 2.1 adds something called dynamic metadata.

Dynamic metadata is one of the major features of Dolby Vision. That allows the movie to set the brightest and darkest points on a scene-by-scene or even a frame-by-frame basis.

That means the image you see on your TV is closer to what the filmmaker intended.

You’re Ready for 8K 

Even if you haven’t upgraded from a 720p or 1080p TV to a 4K model, it’s never too early to start thinking about 8K.

Content may not have caught up to the newest advanced resolution, but it won’t be long before it is the new standard.

If you’re not familiar with how HDMI ports work with the various resolutions, it comes to down frame rates.

For example, HDMI 2.0 has a playback rate of 30Hz with a 4K resolution, so you may notice some tearing or blurry frames, especially with fast-paced movies or live action sports.

HDMI 2.1 starts you off with 60Hz for 8K content. It’s ready to start streaming straight out of the box. If you’re like me and waiting for 8K, you want to invest in components with HDMI 2.1 connectivity.

Bandwidth for Gaming 

It used to be common for A/V manufacturers to forget about gamers, but that’s quickly changing.

Gamers would often have to sacrifice image quality in order to gt a faster refresh rate. Even though most newer model TVs come with a dedicated gaming mode, it is still a trade-off between smooth gameplay or immersive graphics.

Avid gamers know that the refresh rate is crucial to avoid tearing and slow loading frames. Your game doesn’t stop when the frame is still loading, and this can be disastrous when you are in the middle of a match.

HDMI 2.1 eliminates that problem. With a 120Hz refresh rate, even story-driven and first-person shooter games play smoothly without any noticeable lag.

Variable Refresh Rate (VRR)

Variable Refresh Rate (VRR) was a feature included in HDMI 2.0b, but further expanded in HDMI 2.1.

Inconsistent frame rates can cause screen tearing, and that’s something no gamer ever wants to deal with. Gaming companies came up with V-Sync technology to help frames play more smoothly, but it’s not a perfect fix.

Manufacturers of audio and video components also include FreeSync and G-Sync technology in their hardware. It is a better solution than V-Sync, but it isn’t perfect. You may still see noticeable lag and tearing in some graphic intense games.

HDMI 2.1 includes support for variable refresh rates (VRR) and it’s quickly becoming the standard for gaming monitors, projectors, and TVs.

It’s a universal solution that works without the need for FreeSync or G-Sync-enabled components. The HDMI 2.1 port is all you need.

Automatic Low Latency Mode

Auto low latency mode (ALLM) is a new feature in HDMI 2.1 that gamers will appreciate. It doesn’t affect movies, TV shows, or live sports, but it does affect your gameplay.

Latency speed is what determines how long it takes for the signal from the gaming console to reach the screen. Think about Grand Theft Auto. When you need to quickly turn a corner or are fighting a rival, you need your character to move in sync with the controller. The latency speed is how long it takes to respond to the command.

Components with HDMI 2.0 ports require you to manually adjust the input lag. It’s usually done in the menu settings. It’s not a complicated or time-consuming process, but it can get annoying when you are switching between various latency speeds.

The ALLM feature takes care of this for you. It automatically switches to the lower latency speed when the component detects you are gaming. Latency speeds increase when you start watching a show, video, or movie.

It may not seem like a big deal over 2.0 HDMI ports, but if you use the device for mixed media, you will quickly come to appreciate the convenience.

Quick Media Switching

What is quick media switching (QMS)?

QMS is another great new feature in HDMI 2.1. Basically, QMS ensures you don’t miss a second of the action. You can switch between inputs without dealing with blank screens.

Entertainment components with HDMI 2.0 ports take noticeably longer to switch between inputs. You may notice it when you’re gaming and then switch to a live football game. You miss some of the action due to the slow media switching.

Slow media switching is the blank screen you see when you switch from one connected device to another. The frame refresh rates aren’t the same for all types of media and this can confuse your TV. The blank screen is the result of your television readjusting for the new frame rate.

HDMI 2.1 ports take care of this with QMS. It automatically syncs the refresh rate to the TV, reducing the time it takes to switch between inputs.

Enhanced Auto Return Channel

To be honest, eARC was my favorite feature in HDMI 2.0, and it only got better in HDMI 2.1.

The enhanced auto return channel is necessary when you have a 7.1 channel a/v receiver. If you want to configure your speakers in more than a 5.1 setup, your component needs to have an eARC feature.

It helps ensure audio is crisp and clear, without interference. You don’t have to compress audio files or worry about latency speeds. eARC technology takes advantage of the ethernet, so you get a more secure and stable audio signal.

Unfortunately, HDMI 2.1 ports don’t solve all of the problems associated with longer cables. You are still limited to about 50 feet before you run the risk of inference and signal degradation.  Optical audio connections remain your best option, but HDMI 2.1 cables are a close second.

HDMI 2.1 connections have one advantage over optical connections, and that is its compatibility with all audio formats.

HDMI 2.1 and Cables 

A common question about devices with HDMI 2.1 ports deals with old HDMI 2.0 cables. Can you still use them? The answer depends on what features you want.

Some HDMI 2.1 features work great with standard cables, while others are not supported. eARC doesn’t care if you are using 2.0 or 2.1 cables but refresh rates and latency speeds for visual and audio will be affected.

The type of cables you use also depends on the components. If you have an HD TV or projector, you do not need to upgrade the cables. You don’t have support for 4K content or for the advanced features that come with HDMI 2.1 ports.

How to Find HDMI 2.1 Cables 

You can’t walk into an electronics store and ask for HDMI 2.1 cables. It’s the same story ordering online. Manufacturers didn’t make it that easy. Instead, they came up with cool marketing names.

Premium high-speed HDMI cables support 2.0 ports. They are not the same as HDMI 2.1 cables, no matter the advertising. Look for catchwords like Ultra High-Speed HDMI. It usually denotes 2.1 compatibility. You always want to read the product description before you buy new HDMI cables.

You also won’t have to worry about the price. HDMI 2.1 cables are inexpensive and worth the investment if you plan on staying current with the latest media formats.

HDMI bandwidth comarison

Is HDMI 2.1 Necessary? 

HDMI isn’t necessary, but it’s great to have if you care about image and audio quality. You have time before your HDMI 2.0 technology becomes obsolete, but if you aren’t obsessed with owning the latest in audio and video technology, you can wait a few years before upgrading.

Avid gamers are a different story. They need the fast refresh rates and low latency speeds that come with HDMI 2.1 technology. It also applies to owners of 4K components, and those that are looking at 8K models.  

Can You Start Upgrading Now? 

Even though HDMI 2.1 technology is relatively new, you can start upgrading as new components roll off of the assembly line.

Gaming consoles are sadly behind other components when it comes to HDMI 2.1 technology. It seems silly, since several of the features are designed to enhance your gaming experience. Don’t worry, you can still take advantage of HDMI 2.1 tech with the right monitor, TV, or projector. Most newer models come with the updated technology.


Still not sure about HDMI 2.1? You aren’t the only one. Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions regarding HDMI 2.1 vs. 2.0.

Will the hardware in my HDMI 2.0 devices be upgraded to 2.1?

You don’t have to replace your old components, only the HDMI cable. An HDMI 2.1 cable is compatible with 2.0 version ports. If you have a gaming console with an HDMI 2.0 port, and your 4K TV has a 2.1, the newer version cable connects without any problems to the older port.

You still get all HDMI 2.1 features without having to buy new devices.

Is my HDR TV becoming obsolete?

Until 8K resolution is the standard, your 4K and HDR televisions and home theater projectors will not become obsolete. It will take several years for every manufacturer to catch up with the constantly advancing technology.

If your TV or projector is only a few years old, you have nothing to worry about. You can even use HDMI 2.1 cables with these components. You get some of the features without having to replace your entertainment system.

Can I connect HDMI 2.1 cables to any HDMI-enabled device?

The answer to this question is yes. HDMI 2.1 cables are compatible with older inputs and outputs. The port size is the same, along with the type of connection. You can connect an older PlayStation or Xbox to an HDMI 2.1 cable and enjoy immersive graphics, low input lag, and a fast refresh rate.

Do I need 2.1 HDMI for a 4K TV?

You can support 4K content without an HDMI 2.1 cable at the cost of losing some image quality. The dynamic HDR you get with the 2.1 HDMI support is impressive. You will notice a difference between the two types of HDMI technology.

Tim Wells